Interview with Swoon (Caledonia "Callie" Curry)
Interview questions and responses courtesy of the artist. Photos by Savannah Ferrell.
Name: Swoon (Caledonia “Callie” Curry)
Based in: Brooklyn
What initially inspired you to pursue art (how old were you, family influence, etc.)?
So, I was always a weird shy kid who drew a lot and liked to make sculptures out of mud in the yard, and I was always picked to do the special arts projects at school and such, but it wasn't till all of my friends moved away or grew up one summer and my mom noticed that I was alone playing with mud a little too much, and decided to take me to a class of some sort. At first I wanted to do gymnastics but the class got cancelled so my mom recommended this painting class she had seen in the paper. It was a 6 hour painting class on Sundays taught by a woman who was a disciple of the happy tv painters like Bob Ross. It was a funny thing when I got in there and got real paints and brushes in a room full of adults. I kicked ass the first day and that was it, I was in, every Sunday no matter what. I remember one day I was doing badly and I tried to say "but I am only 10", and they weren't having it. These people really made me take myself seriously, and of course my family and teachers hailed me as a genius (cause everybody loves flowers and sunsets) so from that point on I had this pretty supernatural self confidence with my artistic abilities. Thinking you can do anything helps you go ahead and try to do everything. I went on from there to study with a serious classical teacher all throughout high school, renaissance style painting, and then I went to Pratt and lost my mind.
Becoming an artist was just one of those things that happened in childhood, when I was too young to be able to articulate much about that decision, it was just who I was, and what I wanted to spend most of my time doing. From there I studied art very traditionally, and working outside was a way to make something in a space that I felt was my own. Funny as that sounds, those walls decidedly did not belong to me, but somehow a city wall was mine more than a classical oil painting was mine -- if that makes sense?
Your cutouts are rather intricate. Could you explain how and when you developed the process?
I am continuously inspired by the Wayang shadow puppet theater in Indonesia. What I was trying to do when I made the first cut out was to create a big shadow puppet and have it walk the streets. I was also inspired by all of the people working on large street portraits as the time, wk, blek le rat, and banksy were people whose work I looked up to, and I had been scratching around trying to create pieces which really made sense when situated in the urban environment. I wanted to make something so in its element that it might seem like it had been born on that spot. In all my years painting I had been a portraitist first and foremost. Human beings, their expressions, and gestures, and concerns were the subjects I took to best, and so when I did the first life size cut out, it was a portrait of my grandfather, it just poured forth in the blink of an eye and all in one piece. I remember a feeling of surprise, it was like it had made itself and I knew that it was the beginning of something.
Can you talk a little about your process of making the prints and then how you put them up?
So I usually do life sized portraits, family, friends, people I see in the neighborhood. I get fixated on a gesture or expression and drawing is a way that I can better understand what it is about that thing that I find magnetic. I use a few different techniques, from just cut paper to linoleum or wood block printing, something about the image usually dictates what medium I will choose. I take lots of pictures and mostly work from those, though I do collect hundreds of images from the library and it's crappy photocopier which are a huge body of inspiration. All of the portraits pretty much start out the same way which is with a rough sketch and then if it is paper cut, I refine the drawing down with a knife in a few layers of paper, or if it is a block print then I carve it out, and print it by inking my block, laying a large sheet of paper across the top and walking all over it, I don't have access to a press that big. Then I just wheat paste them up outside, roll them out like a very fragile piece of wallpaper and see what happens next.
When creating an image, how concerned are you with how your audience will interpret your image?
When I draw I am cutting a little window, and trying to let something come through. I want to translate to people who see my pieces, on the street or wherever, what I saw, in a particular moment. A delivery guy furiously biking down the street, a girl sitting on a stoop, whatever it is. I want people to feel how that moment stopped time for me, the air slowed, sweeter and heavier around my head, and I felt like I could see straight through to something essential about being a person; or being that person, sitting on that stoop. It's that I just saw the most beautiful thing and I want to tell it to everyone, and for them to see it too. That part is important to me.
How many periods or 'stages' has your work gone through throughout the last few years?
So many. Just starting from the time when I began working on the Street…
At first I was making tiny collage posters and hundreds of handmade stickers. I was obsessively sticking them everywhere and asking myself all the time what I was doing this for, but the fixation wouldn't turn me loose. Then I started taking over billboards and other commercial spaces and paying a lot of attention to the political aspect of working with public space. I started a collective, we were very focused on actions and events, and still this all felt very connected, like the logic was a straight line from the first sticker I ever stuck to the side of a payphone -- it was all addressing the uses of our city streets in physical, tangible ways. At the same time that this was going on I made the leap into the full sized figures that were just a sheet of cut paper and I pursued that path until it started to wear on my arm and I realized that my mind travels in too many directions to stick to one medium anyway. So I started to incorporate some techniques of wood carving, linoleum block printing, silk screen, painting and so on. I find that every medium has its own logic and demands, and that my thought process expands as I push around inside the limitations of each of them. At a certain point I began to get a lot of offers from galleries and institutions, and I found that I wanted to accept some of them. Doing so gave me the space to make another conceptual, aesthetic leap through creating more complex installations than would be possible under the rules of the outdoors. When Deitch Projects approached me to do an installation last year, and Jeffrey lent me a studio to build in and I was able to take 5 months to concentrate solely on one project, that was another huge shift. For years and years I had daydreamed that one day I would be able to make something whereby everything that I had learned studying painting and drawing would still apply, only you would be walking around inside it. It seemed so far away to me then, a near impossibility, but I just had this very vague sense that what I wanted to make would be like a hybrid of the rules of painting, attention to color, form, rhythm and so on, and my dreaming mind, which loves nothing more than to explore strange landscapes.
How and when did your street art start?
Well, getting to New York was such a huge shift for me from the life of a small town, I had been so excited to have such proximity to the art world, but almost instantly I began to perceive it as stifling and alienating, almost nothing spoke to me viscerally, so much of the work that I was seeing felt cold and distant and irrelevant really. It was all so many huge austere objects for investment and the constant sense that the joke must be on you. At school I was getting the feeling of being herded into a corral, like we were all gonna find the one thing that we would base our career on, beg some gallery to show us, and then go on repeating that action for the rest of our lives. I remember a specific day where I just lost it in the middle of painting class. I put my brushes down and walked away from my canvas, my teacher asked me what was wrong and all I could say was that something had to change but I didn't know what.
There were a couple of formative experiences at this time. I remember seeing a show of documentation and notes by Gordon Matta Clarke, at first I was reading the plans and thought he must be joking, all of this stuff about entering abandoned buildings and chain sawing out sections of the floor before anyone noticed. Then when I saw the pictures, and they were so devastatingly beautiful, so temporal and strange, created from the decaying parts of a city, which was at that time being evacuated en masse. It struck me through and through and I knew that in whatever tiny way I could I would try to create something which embodied some of the same principles of creating temporary moments of beauty which were more a part of the city itself than a singular object. I started to notice people who were working with the city in all kinds of different ways.
One day you don't even see all the stuff going on right in front of your face, and the next day you are obsessed, it's a total perceptual shift. The impermanence and immediacy of it appealed to me instantly. It was slightly violent and totally generous at the same time. At first I just wanted to be a part of that collage of information so I started postering these little transparent collages that were intended to blend with all of the imagery and layers already existing on so many city streets. I wanted to make something which wasn't an object and couldn't belong to anyone, but which was simply a moment that passed with the changing. I guess I started that process around 1999/2000. I was working originally with small stickers, and then with billboards, and then I started working with the ad spaces in the subway, and from there I was working with the walls and postering and stuff. I knew I had no graffiti background whatsoever, so I had to come with something totally different.
I know that you've been exhibiting your work in galleries now. When did that begin and what was the transition like for you (i.e. from street to gallery)?
Right now I am supporting myself from my work. I was a waitress for a lot of years and when the opportunity started to present itself for me to be supported by the things I was already doing, and loved doing, I was very ready. I love being flattened tired every day from working on my own wildest dreams and not from serving brunch.
The first real show show that I did was in Berlin, I was totally torn up about it at first because I had developed this whole ethos about everything being free and in the public domain, and impermanent and open to all of the forces the city has to offer, so when I found myself wanting to take on projects in a protected space and wanting to make extremely making 'precious' objects, I knew I was just beginning to deal with the polarity of my desires. I had gone so far in one direction, could I allow myself to return to this thing that once made me run screaming?
It was something that I came back to slowly. The first space I ever worked in was so amazing and so totally my ideal of what an art space should, so when they asked, be there was no question, I had to do it. It was this pair in Berlin, Juergen Gross and Micha Bonk who ran a kind of art space/graffitti community center called urban art.info. Juergen was a construction foreman who happened to be in love with street art and would do anything to support that community. I worked with Akim and Zasd who are definitely a central driving force behind the scene there and my friend Polina Soloveichik and I make a huge installation and then had an opening where people were making music and dancing and making all kinds of art and bringing it out onto the streets, the surrounding blocks were completely covered, at a certain point, someone took a five gallon bucket of paint over to the police station which was a block away, opened the door and splattered it everywhere. It was a total madhouse. I can't believe no one got arrested and I kept turning to Juergen and saying, is this ok, are you ok? And he would just beam from ear to ear. It was here that I learned that you can work in galleries and it doesn't have to feel like you are exhibiting in a comatorium. I have since then made my share of mistakes, shown in places that were the same kind of galleries I hated from the get go, sold my work into collections where it inevitably becomes part of the same sterile cannon that i have been trying to resist, but this shit is hard, trying to grow as an artist, support yourself, and not limit yourself, take opportunities as they come and not stay stuck inside some rigid ideal of keeping it real (to death). I have definitely done everything I said I would never do at least once.
My favorite shows are when there is some literal crossover between inside and out, when the exhibition has two facets, part of it living in the streets, part of it developing in the more protected space of a gallery. I think I had to find for myself a way of working that was completely independent of the gallery system before I could consider working within it, now I recognize that there are some projects that I want to do which will benefit from having a roof over them, but I know I am not limited to this as an outlet. I have spent years doing street parties and poster campaigns and this summer even making a flotilla of rafts that go down the mississippi river and I now have an understanding that my work is something which has a life cycle, and has a space within my life and the lives of others, and that museums and galleries are just one stop over in this larger process. When looked at from this perspective, the institutions sort of lose their power.
What role do you think art plays in social change? What roles do you think art plays in our lives?
That's a good question. I am in Mexico at the moment. I just came out of the mountains from a week in an indigenous village in the south. I was there with a couple of friends who have been working there for five years. The community has its own police force to protect themselves from government corruption and exploitation, and they are in the midst of building all kinds of other autonomous projects. Abigail and Rafael went there originally to work on a mural which was supposed to take about six months but they have since lent their hands to all of these other projects which are about strengthening the indigenous communities in the area, and helping them build a slow nonviolent revolution from the inside. The other day Rafael said to me 'Siquieros and Orozco, they were good, their work documented life after the Mexican revolution, but Posada; he was the only one whose work was actually part of the process of revolution. That's what we want our work to be, part of the process.' They are my favorite example of something real and working at the moment.
I like people just up and doing things. Forget petitioning the Government. Governments, when not pointedly malicious, are usually, at their best, slow and stupid. Trying to propagandize the masses? Sure, but I love to see people just carving out their own spaces for survival, just making something happen. If it matters, people will notice and it will grow, change, and create change.
How do you see street art changing in the next few years?
When I first started, I was just going to do one little poster series and that was going to be it. Already this fixation with street art has lead me down various avenues, through experiments with pirate radio to exploring subway tunnels and throwing street parties, all connected in my mind by this invisible thread that I began to pull at the day I decided I wanted to make something that would be so immaterial as to physically become part of the collage of a city wall. It lead me through thinking about participating visually and socially in the creation of the city in ways I never would have had the chutzpah to imagine before, and so I think that there must be people out there having this same experience.
The question that interests me most is not necessarily how will the practice of making art on the street grow and change, but how will the experience of seeing that you can shape the environment that you live in with your own two hands affect the psychology of the city? Beginning with the participants who find the experience empowering, and who knows? Perhaps spreading to affect the whole social climate, via the feeling of freedom, openness, and possibility that can be engendered when people see colorful scrappy city walls not as a signal of danger and degradation, but as a sign that their neighbors care to be a part of the creation of their city. In cities where there are drippy anarchy symbols painted everywhere and the old stuffy statues of the imperialists are shot up with paint bombs, things happen, people know that the city is for the communication of their desires. I want to know how we can make things that open up change to each other.
I believe that every artist who places something on a city wall or in a commercial space is threatening the agreed upon boundaries of public and private space, as well as upsetting the inertia of people's passive acceptance of an environment in which we cannot affect change. What comes next after these things have been thoroughly challenged? What develops out of a society of people who start to see the power of their own actions reflected back at them, reverberating a thousand times with the energy of every person who feels the same way?